MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL – How sweet it was seeing James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt together at Summerfest
By Piet Levy
Controversy is the last word you’d ever associate with James Taylor, but the celebrated singer-songwriter took a very small amount of heat four years back when he was caught on camera comparing the fans at his last Milwaukee show to wood at an Illinois gig.
He apologized. But honestly, he was right. And honestly, Taylor was very wooden himself that night.
That certainly wasn’t the case during his two-hour Summerfest show Thursday at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater. From the beautifully rendered video backdrop — often reflecting a cinematic scrapbook — to spectacular and engaged renditions of his gems, this show was vastly superior in every way.
One reason Taylor may have had a bit of pep in his step: his opener and practically lifelong friend Bonnie Raitt, whom Taylor introduced himself Thursday, calling her “as generous and gracious a soul that walks this earth.” And she came as close to living up to those words as any person could performing on stage for an hour.
This was one of the first shows Raitt has performed since an undisclosed medical issue forced her to cancel the first leg of Taylor’s tour. When she said she felt grateful she could still perform, it clearly wasn’t a line. Neither was her praise for friend and Milwaukee music veteran Paul Cebar, who welcomed Raitt as his guest on his WMSE-FM (91.7) show. In addition to Cebar, Raitt praised the talent of several Milwaukee musicians, quite high praise from an 11-time Grammy winner.
Across 10 songs, she showed she was worth every accolade and then some, including a smoking blues-rock rendition of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” (with Ivan Neville’s keys throwing a bit of gas on the flames).
And she dedicated a sparsely gorgeous cover of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” to women suffering around the world, including those “separated from their children right now,” an apparent reference to the immigration crisis.
And before she wrapped up, she slapped on some lipstick as Taylor returned to the stage to jam along to John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love,” the friends huddling together, electric guitars in hand.
Raitt returned the favor during Taylor’s encore, sitting by his side for an intimate rendition of “You Can Close Your Eyes” and paying tribute to Chuck Berry with her own sweet and spicy guitar riffs to “Johnny B. Goode.”
Taylor was accompanied by 10 other excellent musicians who brought the best out of his material. Andrea Zonn’s dusty fiddle solo set the tone for “Country Road” before Steve Gadd’s thunderous drums took the tune off-roading. Cuban percussionist Luis Conte quickened the show’s pulse with some Latin jazz-infused takes on “First of May” and “Mexico.” Lou Marini, best known from “The Blues Brothers,” supplied sweet sax notes for “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” and Arnold McCuller’s soulful falsetto brought a gentle glow to “Shower the People.”
They all seemed to really fire up Taylor, who offered jumps and Chuck Berry-style stage struts, even an excitable “woo,” in addition to his more mellow moments. He rightly lavished the band with praise early in the night — before turning over his acoustic guitar to reveal a note that read “Help Me” in big letters.
It was one of several funny, and some not-so-funny, bits. Taylor actually dropped an F-bomb talking about the crude joke his dad used to make that partially inspired “May.” “Handy Man” was accompanied by footage of construction mishaps akin to an “America’s Funniest Home Videos” montage. And “Steamroller” — which featured great moments from guitarist Michael Landau, pianist Kevin Hays and trumpet player Walt Fowler — was nearly ruined by Taylor’s cringe-inducing, bluesman-style vamping. It was like something you’d see Michael Scott do on “The Office.”
But Taylor was sincere, and engaged, when he needed to be, particularly during a loving cover of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” As he sang, he even ad-libbed a few things to say about his Milwaukee fans: “Everyone here at Summerfest is the best.”
Well, thank you, James. You’re pretty great yourself.